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Historical Jesus Class - Discussion 1

Discussion Questions:

  • Based on the reading and film, discuss examples of the layers of experience and interpretation that stand between the historical Jesus and the written sources on his life that we have access to. 
  • None of canonical Gospels claims to be a diary written as events happened, and none even claims to have been written down by direct eyewitnesses.  They and the other sources we have appear to be at the receiving end of orally transmitted reports passed down over time. 
  • What do you think were the major influences that may have shaped reports about Jesus as they were passed from person to person orally?  What expectations and experiences did the people have that might have shaped how stories about Jesus were told, or how certain things he taught were emphasized
    over others? 
  • How serious do you think the challenge is to recover historical facts about Jesus through these layers of interpretation?

  • Answer:

    Upon reading the question, “What do you think were the major influences that may have shaped reports about Jesus as they were passed from person to person orally?” my immediate thought was the religious/political context of the time. By that I mean the Jewish-Roman War of 66-74 CE and the destruction of the temple in 70CE, and the almost certain sense of chaos that caused. According to the book, the Q source was probably not much more than the collected sayings of Jesus, and Mark (which is considered to be roughly as original a source as Q) is described in the book as “historically worthless” due to it being so heavily influenced by “the author’s theological premises” (pg 27). With Matthew and Luke both being largely based off of Mark it seems notable that the further one gets from Q in time, the more the focus increases on the application of the old prophesies to Jesus’ life (Matthew paints Jesus “as a fulfillment of prophetic promises” and that via his conduct “Jesus fulfills the Torah” (pg 31)) and Jesus’s anointed status (Luke “designates Jesus the savior anointed with the Spirit of God” saying that he “proclaims salvation” to the outcasts (pg 32).

    The progression from ‘here are the things the wise man said’ to ‘he was clearly a fulfillment of prophesy sent to save us all’ which seems to be hinted at by the written version of the game of telephone that the synoptic Gospels display, just makes it seem more likely that the religious and political environment of the time had a part to play. The fact that Q is written down before the war and the destruction of the temple, possibly as early as the 40s or 50s (pg 29), but the earliest known version of Mark wasn’t written down until around the time the temple was destroyed, in the middle of the war (pg 26) seems very illustrative to me.

    And if this is the journey taken in writing, I can only assume it was first reflected in the oral versions between Q in the 40/50s and Mark in 70CE. I think it reflects, clearly, a circumstantial social/cultural need for a Messiah to appear so that one cannot trust the narrative at all. It could be completely accurate, it could be completely contrived to fit the expectations of the people in relation to a contemporary need for a savior, or it could be somewhere in the middle of the two.

    I think this possible shaping of the written narrative into what was expected and desired is a very complicating factor in trying to determine anything about the historical Jesus from the Gospels. Obviously, the basics of his existence, teaching, and execution, which even the non-Christian sources agree happened, can be assumed to be accurate. But not only can one not be certain of the veracity of his purported actions (particularly the miraculous or prophesy-fulfilling ones), but even of his sayings, since they are all, at least possibly, run through the same filter of a psychological need for him to be the prophesied Messiah. I think the film, with its focus on history and archaeology was a far more instructive source on an honest version of Jesus than anything to be found in the Synoptic Gospels.


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